Q: A pair of ringed turtle doves appeared in our driveway the last week in May and we’re now seeing them come to the feeders. Is this an unusual sighting or are they moving into our area like the house finches did?
A: Your speculation is right on target. These birds, also known as collared doves for the black line on the nape of their necks, are moving into our area. These are Eurasian birds, about the size of a mourning dove, first noticed in our hemisphere in the Bahamas in the 1970s. They were first sighted in Minnesota in 1998 and are now found across much of North America. Even though they’re an alien species, they don’t seem to be a threat to other birds. They withstand our winters fairly well, and seem destined to become a more common sight. The pair you’re seeing might be nesting, since they raise up to four broods a year.
Q: We’ve been using one of those cloth thistle socks to feed the finches but are becoming concerned about all the rain this spring. It doesn’t seem practical to bring it in each time rain is forecast. Any suggestions?
A: You’re right, moisture and these cloth feeders don’t mix well. The sock and the seed stay wet for many hours after a rain and this could lead to an outbreak of fungus and/or disease. I’d suggest using a cloth sock only when there’s not a cloud in the sky. Linnea Carlson, who owns Chickadee’s House Wild Bird Store in Roseville, suggests switching to a similar feeder made of metal mesh. The metal dries more quickly and the feeder opens up for easier drying and cleaning. Another good suggestion from Carlson: Install a large squirrel baffle to act as an umbrella above the feeder. This will keep the seed dry during most rainstorms.
Q: What were the cedar waxwings doing in my apple tree this spring?
A: These handsome art deco-looking birds were feeding on the blossoms, strange as it may seem. They’ll consume buds, flowers and young leaves of fruit trees because these are nutritious and there’s little else available in early spring for these fruit-eating birds. Other birds that eat blossoms include cardinals, house finches, blue jays and goldfinches. The birds rarely cause damage to the fruit crop and in fact may be doing you a favor by pruning excess blossoms.
Q: We had so many first-time birds visiting our feeders this spring, from scarlet tanagers to orioles. I’m wondering if this was due to the very cold weather.
A: You’re right, the extended period of cold, wet weather in April and May suppressed the usual hatch of insects that sustain many of our colorful spring migrants. Many readers reported seeing brilliant scarlet tanagers, bright orange Baltimore orioles, several kinds of colorful warblers and even orchard orioles at their feeders for the first time. The birds seemed especially hungry for suet, which provides a quick burst of energy. Most of these birds are insect eaters and some could even be found foraging on the ground at times.
Wood chucking chickadees
Q: This spring I filled up two chickadee houses with cedar chips, and the chickadees emptied them both out. Then I refilled the houses and stuffed the ends of my clothes pole with chips, while a chickadee watched me. They took all these chips away. I don’t know where they take them but my informal experiment tells me that chickadees love to move cedar chips and they keep an eye on people, too.
A: Chickadees do keep an eye on everything in their environment, since they’re curious and adaptable little birds. When they make a nest in the wild, they generally choose a well-rotted tree stub or stump, hollowing out a nest cavity by filling their beaks with wood dust and carrying it away. They’re cautious about where they dump this debris because they don’t want to alert a predator to nest-building activity. So it sounds as if your chickadees were opening up potential nest sites.
Sense of smell?
Q: A chickadee was pecking away at a rotten spot under one of our eaves. How do they know where the bad spots are? I wasn’t aware that they had a sense of smell, so do they use some other sense?
A: Chickadees seem to have almost a sixth sense for detecting rotting wood, since they build their nests inside old tree stubs that have gone to rot. Their tiny beaks dictate that such wood be so decayed that they can just pull it apart. They’re doubtless always on the lookout for any signs of rot and might probe likely looking spots, as well. Another possibility is that the rotten wood had attracted wood-boring insects and the chickadees might have been after these. Until recently, birds were said to have a poorly developed sense of smell but this is being amended as further evidence comes in. It never seemed likely, to me, that birds would be lacking one of the major senses.
Q: A mallard duck laid her eggs on top of our pile of wood chips we were getting ready to spread as mulch. We plan to hold off on this but I wonder if I should leave some cracked corn for her, so she doesn’t have to leave the nest.
A: Good for you for letting the mother mallard take over your mulch pile for almost a month. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to put out food for her, because this could attract rodents that might try to steal some eggs, and other birds, which might bother her. The nearby pond you mentioned provides the food she needs without extended absences from her nest. Putting out corn might change the dynamic in a negative way.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who leads bird hikes for the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.